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HOUSTON (Reuters) - On a typical summer weekend in Grand Isle, Louisiana, Frank Besson's small gift shop would be filled with customers picking up a souvenir as they headed back home from a weekend visit to the beach.
But this summer, business at the Nez Coupe is down about 95 percent, Besson said, as most of this coastal community's beaches remain shut. Motels are filled with workers hired by BP Plc to clean up its oil spill, not tourists.
Since BP's ruptured oil well was capped in July, no oil has flowed into the Gulf of Mexico and efforts are slowly shifting to recovery from clean up. But in Louisiana, the state that took the brunt of the worst oil spill in U.S. history, life is far from normal.
"We're still trying to clean up beaches with tarballs and oil," Besson said. "People are coming here to work, they are not here to spend money."
Grand Isle, a sport-fishing destination located on the southern Louisiana coast, also has some of the state's more popular beaches. It was hit hard by heavy crude oil after the April 20 blow out of the BP well, and the cleanup is still a major operation.
A few beaches are open as the summer nears its unofficial end on the September 6 Labor Day holiday, but people are advised to stay out of the water on at least one beach because it may sicken swimmers, according to the Louisiana Department of Health & Hospitals Beach Monitoring Program.
Of the 135 miles of Gulf Coast shoreline still covered in moderate to heavy oil, 115 miles are in Louisiana.
Heavy machines are being used to separate sand from oil on Grand Isle's beaches and crab traps are set to check for signs of oil under the water, U.S. Coast Guard Rear Admiral Paul Zukunft, head of the government's on-scene oil spill response, said in an interview.
"We're in it for as long as it takes," Zukunft said. "Our effort is to make this environment as clean as possible, ideally what is was before April 20."
No oil is visible on the Gulf's surface, he said, and no new oil is washing ashore. In preparation for the expected final kill of the stricken Macondo well next month, the fleet of vessels once used to collect oil from the surface of the Gulf are back in port on standby.
The economic impact of the spill is apparent. Local charities have posted flyers along Highway 23, the main highway cutting through coastal Plaquemines Parish, offering hot dog lunches and free pet food.
Kristina Peterson, pastor of the Bayou Blue Presbyterian Church, said her parishioners are hurting.
"I've seen signs that women are starting to take in washing and ironing. Small businesses are closing," she said.
While more and more of the states waters have opened to recreational and commercial fishing, those who depend on the state's bayous to feed their family are still stuck.
One fisherman who asked not to be identified because he feared it might jeopardize a job application with Transocean Ltd, the owner of the drilling rig that exploded and sank causing the spill, said the oil has kept him from catching his supper.
"I've been fishing here my whole life," the resident of Lafitte, Louisiana, said. "I use the water as my food source and here you've been holding me back from fishing from three to four months. I ought to be compensated I figure."
Editing by Eric Beech